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Friday, October 4, 2013
Resisting the pull of fantasy football

By Skip Bayless
ESPN.com

Michael Vick
Congratulations, Michael Vick, for your string of stout fantasy games. Too bad your Eagles are 1-3.

Consider this my final SOS. If any other survivors remain out there, please attempt to communicate by any means possible. I am losing my resolve and could succumb to Them at any moment.

Alas, I am virtually certain I am the last human on Earth who does not play fantasy football. Please, somebody help me. They want my soul, and they soon will have it.

My battle with Them started long ago, in the late 1980s when I hosted a call-in radio show in Dallas. Day after day, they would dupe my call screener by saying they wanted to talk Cowboys or Mavericks, then get on live radio and ask if I thought this obscure receiver or that obscure receiver would have a better game Sunday. What?!

When I figured out these callers played something called fantasy football -- in which the final scores of NFL games no longer mattered! -- I shamed them publicly, calling them a blasphemous plague on the world's greatest game. Little did I know what I really was up against.

It finally became clear in 2007, when my show "First Take" moved from Manhattan to Bristol, Conn., home of ESPN's mother ship. Did I say ESPN's? Wrong. It has been taken over by Them.

Their leader is called Matthew Berry, a superior being who came to our planet with one mission: complete overthrow and control, one human mind at a time. He established a laughable earthly identity, claiming his father is a professor of marketing at Texas A&M University and his mother is -- get this -- the mayor of College Station, Texas! Right, he's Matthew Football!

This is right out of the ABC comedy, "The Neighbors," in which a family moves to a gated community completely inhabited by goofy aliens masquerading as humans. But this is no joke.

This is closer to the plot of "The World's End," the recent movie in which the character played by Simon Pegg talks his friends into going back to their hometown, only to discover that an alien race is replacing humans with robots that are exact replicas. Hello, fantasy football players! Now I am surrounded by multiplying multitudes of Them -- people I used to know who are now Matthew Berry's robots, eating, sleeping and breathing fantasy points. My friends and family play FF, my bosses and co-workers play FF, the guy who delivers my Chinese food keeps asking me if he should play this no-name running back or that one. EVERYONE I KNOW PLAYS.

Except me.

I remain unashamed to publicly declare my lifelong love of watching football. I have watched thousands upon thousands of games simply because I cared solely about which team won. I never needed an excuse, a crutch, a silly game-within-the-game reason to watch. Give me great players making great plays under the world's greatest pressure. Give me red white and blue REAL FOOTBALL.

Or give me death.

Do not give me some bastardized sub-game in which participants must root for "their" players on opposing teams against the teams they've always rooted for. Sorry, that's against my sports religion. Do not give me Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy as fantasy "superstars" when their team is 1-3 or the St. Louis Rams defense as this week's '85 Bears just because it's playing 0-4 Jacksonville. These are apocalyptic signs.

I closely follow football (and basketball and baseball) for the right reasons, not the alarmingly irrelevant ones.

Yet here is the kind of ingenious propaganda I have fought from Matthew Berry, ESPN's "senior fantasy analyst." He and I have debated fantasy football several times on and off air. I humor him by treating him as if he's just another nice-guy human. But he knows that I know that he knows ...

"Look," Matthew Berry said in his hypnotically soothing tones, "if you like sports, you'll love them that much more playing fantasy. If you don't, it gives you a reason to watch."

But I LOVE sports and I will not be brainwashed into believing I am the weirdo here. I will not apologize for watching sports every weeknight from 7 to midnight, every Saturday from noon to 1 a.m. and every Sunday from 1 to midnight. I do this partly for my job, but mostly because I want to.

Knowing I grew up a Cowboys fan, Matthew Berry reached deeper into my psyche: "What's the difference in me rooting for groups of players I selected [in a fantasy draft] versus you rooting for a group of players Jerry Jones selected?"

The crucial difference is that since the Cowboys were created in 1960, I've rooted for (or rued) the teams the Cowboys selected. Matthew's movement subtly sells NFL subversion. Tear away fantasy football's fraternal facade and you discover it's built on megalomaniacal anarchy. Its subliminal message: Forget the team you've always rooted for. YOU be the owner and the GM. YOU pick and control the players. YOU be the star, Joe (and Jill) Nobody.

Now TV commercials for fantasy sites send the message that YOU TOO could one day have a statue in the Fantasy Hall of Fame. Speaking strictly from a male perspective, fantasy provides a fraudulent "man card" to men who once felt less than a man because they really didn't care that much about football. Now they think they're Vince Lombardi.

Fantasy football has successfully changed the way the world consumes sports. I read the other day that FF players spend almost $1 billion a year just on fantasy media. About 80 percent of viewers who watch NFL RedZone play FF. It features nothing but immediate highlights of scoring plays from all games. It's advertised as a "woke-up-in-heaven experience." Nope, just the opposite.

Matthew Berry
It's this guy's fault for cultivating a culture of fantasy fanatics but not real NFL fans.

Fantasy players always claim they root for their real team over their fantasy team, but I don't buy it. I say they're often rooting harder for selected members of the enemy -- for their guys. For themselves. They watch games they'd never watch because they have a running back on one team and their fantasy opponent has a receiver on the other. Actual final scores are obsolete. Garbage yards and scores in blowouts can be fantasy gold.

Matthew Berry calmly and cunningly attacked what he thought was the most vulnerable depth of my soul: "Look, you get an emotional attachment to the guys you pick. Like, you were the only guy on Tebow Island. Everyone said, 'You're crazy.' [Then] all he does is win. You get the last laugh. You picked him before anyone else did."

Yes, I said before Tim Tebow was drafted that I'd take him late in the first round, that he'd never make a Pro Bowl, but that he could win games if allowed to run (and throw from) the read-option. But he didn't win for my fantasy team. He won seven of eight for the Broncos. He led them to the division title, not a fantasy championship. He won a real playoff game against the real-live No.-1 ranked defense.

But ... I will admit my competitive itch gets scratched because I pick just about every NFL game on national TV and Twitter. I very publicly bet my pride. In college I used to bet money on games but got cured forever on one long Lost Saturday. Now I can lose face without losing my shirt.

Obviously gambling is part of the appeal for some fantasy players. But why not form a league based on picking GAMES, straight up or against the spreads? That also would give you a reason to watch, say, Sunday's Jacksonville-St. Louis game. That I could respect.

But not this: Because Matthew Berry keeps selling me "the great camaraderie" of fantasy drafts, I attended one recently in the private room of a sports bar, just to observe Them in their natural habitat. The participants sat at rows of tables with charts spread before them between wings and beers, almost inaudibly grunting their picks.

Happy robots.

Matthew Berry cut short a conversation with me before last week's Thursday night game because Rams running back Isaiah Pead had just gone viral as a surprise inactive and Matthew's loyal (Twitter) followers desperately needed to know if they should pick up rookie backup Zac Stacy. Yes, it has come to this.

Matthew later sent me a list of this year's most clever team names provided by followers. He included one surely intended as a winking suggestion for MY first team: "I Blame Matthew Berry."

Again and again he has smiled his serenely sinister smile and said: "All I ask is that you try playing fantasy just once."

This season, I resisted. Next, I don't know. I am crumbling.

If anyone else is left out there PLEASE SAVE ME.